Today's Reading

CHAPTER TWO

The scent of the ocean, so strong in the center of town, receded sharply as the Despradel carriage sped inland. At Paulina's feet were the numerous parcels Antonio had acquired for her party—his preferred brand of champagne, as well as the imported nuts and dried fruits that he favored. On the seat opposite hers, her brother scowled at the correspondence he had picked up at the post office while she'd been speaking with Sebastian.

Absently, Paulina rubbed her sore wrist. Her brother's grip had left a mark just above the lace that edged her detestably frilly gloves. She would have preferred much simpler ones, but Antonio purchased all her clothes, as he had since she was a child, and he insisted on as great a quantity of frills and furbelows, as if to communicate to anyone who saw her that the Despradel family's coffers were as full as they'd ever been. The more dire their financial situation became, the more lace sprouted on Paulina's clothes. It was the same twist of logic that had made him spend a ruinous amount in Don Enrique's store, though it had only added to their already massive debts.

"Have you ever thought about selling the quinta and buying a house in town?" she asked her brother. "Particularly now that it's being wired for electricity. Just think, not having to go to the bother of filling oil lamps and—"

Antonio glanced at her over the papers in his hand. "Trust a woman to put her petty conveniences over a centuries-long legacy," he remarked. His eyebrow quirked in the way it always did when he was about to say something sarcastic or mocking, and Paulina immediately regretted her remark. "By all means, let us abandon our ancestral home and lands just so you won't have to go to the bother of filling a lamp or two."

Paulina didn't bother to point out that Antonio hadn't bothered to hold on to the rest of their inheritance—namely, the money left behind by their parents as well as the sugar mill that had been built by their father when he converted what used to be pastureland for the family's cattle ranch into sugarcane fields. The Despradels' fierce opposition to the use of enslaved people for the hard labor required by the sugarcane industry was one part of her family's legacy she could be proud of.

She tugged again at the lace bordering her gloves and started when it tore away from the white netting. She glanced up quickly to see whether Antonio had noticed and was surprised to see that he had not gone back to his correspondence but was watching her through narrowed eyes.

"Are you carrying on with Sebastian Linares?"

Paulina blinked at the sudden change in subject. "Carrying on? Of course not. Why would you say such a thing?"

"Why wouldn't I, after seeing how you were simpering over him at Don Enrique's?"

"I was only inviting him to my party tonight. It's about time we got acquainted with our only neighbor. He's lived there for an entire year and we've never made any social overtures—I didn't want him to think we're ill-mannered recluses. In any case," she added, "he might not come."

Sebastian hadn't seemed particularly inclined to when she'd issued the invitation, and though he'd accepted it firmly enough after the altercation with Antonio, Paulina knew better than to get her hopes up. It had been months since she'd gone into town, and longer still since a handsome young man had paid her any attention. That Sebastian Linares had any interest in furthering their acquaintance beyond the strictly neighborly seemed like a schoolgirl dream.

Still, she couldn't deny that the prospect of seeing him again was making her heartbeat quicken.

Antonio's lip curled disdainfully. "I don't know if I care to associate with someone like that—and I won't have you doing it, either."

Paulina knew better than to argue with her brother when he was in one of his moods, but she couldn't help asking, "Like what?"

"Can you really be so naive? You're twenty-one years old, Paulina. It's time you learned a little about life." Carelessly crumpling the letter in his hand, Antonio leaned forward. "Sebastian Linares is not our social equal. In fact, I have every reason to believe he's been lying to conceal the fact that he's of inferior birth. None of the respectable Cubans who've come over have heard of him. Nobody knows who his people are."

It might have been naive of Paulina, but she could scarcely understand why it mattered. Even from their short acquaintance, it was clear that Sebastian Linares was a much better man than her brother, for all his proud lineage, could ever be.

Antonio had gone back to his correspondence without waiting for or likely even expecting a response from Paulina. She turned her head to look at the sugarcane fields speeding past.


This excerpt is from the paperback edition.

Monday we begin the book Falling Stars by Fern Michaels.
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